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February 17, 2016

Evolution: the Debate goes on

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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As a microchip designer for some 50 years, I've grown to accept a theory of evolution that recognizes an originating designer, rather than one that does not.

A microchip obviously implies a designer, for no matter how simple they are, microchips can’t make themselves. Nor can they evolve into advanced generations with higher complexity and more functions without the intervention of a designer.

Yet back in 1859 Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species asserted that animals do make themselves and that each animal is a tiny bit different from its parents.

He claimed that adding up these minute differences over millions of years would eventually produce the complexity of Homo sapiens – humanity’s direct ancestor – whose precursors would have evolved from less-complex apes, who evolved from still-less-complex reptiles, who evolved on down the line from fish, and so on.

Both Darwin (1809-1882) and the lesser-known Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) made their evolutionary claims independently at almost the same time.

It is still surprising today that Darwin’s higher-profiled theory won such wide and continuing acceptance, considering he had no access to the sophisticated analytical computer-aided tools (such as mathematical modelling) available to 21st-century scientists.

Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) claims were based on comparing the bone development of various species over many generations. But they largely ignored major structural differences far beyond-the-apes creatures, such as hip and knee adaptations needed to maintain an upright posture, as well as accommodating a vastly larger brain.

Early in Origin of Species (Chapter 2) Darwin wrote about variations within species that he and other biologists of his era had observed. But his next extrapolation was truly daring.

As another British biologist, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), asked in his biography of Darwin: "Was there a fundamental distinction between species, created as such in the beginning of time, on the one hand, and variations, developed in relation to local or temporary conditions, on the other? Or was there no such sharp distinction, so that variations could be regarded as species in the making?"

From the beginning of the evolutionary debate, the very thought that life in general, and humans in particular, had developed from lower forms through random mutation was unacceptable to the Church.

Yet in the closing lines of his book, Darwin himself acknowledged that the entire evolutionary flow of life happened through “its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into few [life] forms or into one.”

I was surprised – as I’m sure many readers will be – that Darwin used the words breathed and Creator, with a capital C. Both words belong much more to religion than biology.

But in his book he did not answer two very important questions: First, if all forms of life, including humanity, have the ability to evolve over millions of years into higher forms of the same species, does that mean they were "programed" with that ability by a Supreme Being? Secondly, did that same Being also program them with a seemingly magical ability to change into different species? Theologians continue to mull over these issues.

But how do today’s scientists feel about Darwin’s claims?

In his 2002 book A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, Dr. William H. Calvin (professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine) lists 12 human features as “beyond-the-chimps improvements that need step-by-step explanations covering the last five million years,” including such mental attributes as creativity, ethics and the ability to plan for an uncertain future.

“There are many more differences, of course,” Calvin adds, “but I’m trying here for the ones with a big order-of-magnitude improvement beyond great ape abilities. Such ‘uniquely human’ lists have proven very useful in the past – because they stimulate ape researchers to disprove them!”

He concludes his argument by stating; “You’ll notice that I didn’t use the C word here, though I did describe most of the beyond-the-apes uses of consciousness along the way.”

London’s world-famous Natural History Museum has devoted an entire wing to demonstrating Darwin's evolutionary theory. Visitors there can see how pink daisies evolve into blue daisies, how gray moths change into black moths, and how in a mere few thousand years the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria have evolved into such a wide variety of species.

But daisies remain daisies, moths remain moths, and cichlid fish remain cichlid fish. Such changes are called micro-evolution. In this Natural History Museum exhibit, there isn’t “a single unequivocal case in which life underwent a major gradual morphological change,” observes MIT graduate and former professor Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder, in his 1997 book The Science of God.

Another critic of Darwin, Dr. Niles Eldregge, curator at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, asserts: "The fossil record we were told to find for the past 120 years (since Darwin) does not exist."

Some biologists have also attacked Darwin for making even the slightest hint that there is a Creator.

In his 1997 book, This is Biology, Dr. Ernest Mayer argues that “Darwin’s choice of the term ‘selection’ was unfortunate, because it suggests that there is some agent in nature who deliberately selects. Actually the ‘selected’ individuals are simply those who remain alive after all the less well-adapted or less-fortunate individuals have been removed from the population.”

Mainstream religions offer different evolutionary theories as part of their stories of creation and some of Darwin’s observations fit into them.

For centuries, religions have claimed that the evolution of creation on planet earth is by design, with humans placed at, or near, the top (some faiths place angels or similar supernatural beings above mortal people).

This fits well with the Tree of Life concept, a structure based on numerous biologists’ observations during the 150 years since Darwin.  But the fundamental difference is this: religion claims that the branching of species on the Tree of Life is the work of an intentional Designer, not the random or interdependent adaptations of creatures themselves to changes in environment.

Over a scale in which even small increments are measured in millions of years, some Tree of Life branches led to modern humans. But the simplest forms of life actually began "approximately three billion years ago," says Dr. Bernard Wood in his 2005 book Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction.

So while it is often possible to reconcile religious faith with scientific facts, the argument today doesn’t resolve the way Darwin represented it. Extrapolations of his observations help neither science nor religion.

Both the Qur’an and Judeo-Christian Old Testament state that we inhabit a limitless universe designed by a limitless Creator. They don’t say how; that’s a matter for faith.

Islam and Judeo-Christianity both teach a creation story that focuses on the very special, and unique, creation of the first humans, starting with Adam and his wife Eve.

Before they appeared, however, God created the heavens and earth; and earth was prepared with all that would be needed for the survival, growth, and future of humanity – water, animals, plants, etc.

Humans were given a body and brain along with a mystical component called “soul,” allowing them to live in full consciousness and mindfulness.

Other living creatures were given similar survival and procreation abilities. But what distinguishes humans are three unique attributes: high intellect, free will, and a soul. No other creature possesses all three, no matter how similar they are to us in other ways.

Our intellect and soul together allow the Creator to speak to us indirectly (through prayer, conscience and meditation) or directly (through Prophets or Messengers).

Scientifically speaking, our brain size does have a bearing on intellectual capacity, especially when you compare the mere 100,000 neurons of a fruit fly with the average 100 billion that keep the adult human brain fired up and ready for action.

But brain size alone does not explain some less easily quantified human abilities, such as appreciating beauty, planning for the future, artistic creativity, recording history, passing knowledge through generations, seeking answers to questions about why we are here, if there is a life after death, etc. And the entire issue of what it means to have, or even define, “soul” is something very different again, and a perennial mystery.

Darwin and his colleagues contributed immeasurably to our self-knowledge as a species among the vast diversity of life on (and perhaps beyond) this planet. But our 21st-century knowledge has extended into realms that make it increasingly difficult to argue for his representation of faith through science, and vice-versa. So while it is possible to reconcile religious belief with scientific fact, it can no longer be as Darwin envisioned it.

How would Charles Darwin have argued his evolutionary theory today? We can only pause and wonder.

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Today’s topic is the Origins of Islamic History Month in Canada In this show, we are interviewing Dr. Mohamed El-Masry a professor at the University of Waterloo

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